In 1975, a local company called the Central African Transport Company (Catco) embarked on a project to manufacture pick-up trucks. These trucks were christened ‘Zonse’. Catco’s assembly plant had capacity to build three trucks per week, according to its general manager J. Cottinghham, as quoted in a 1975 edition of The Daily Times.
Zonse, which means ‘All’, was appropriately named because it was an ‘all-purpose’ truck, meant to be used by the rural farmer to transport farm input and produce. It was made with simple technology and; therefore, did not require sophisticated expertise to fix it when it broke down. Vehicles with simple technology are better suited to this market than are the ones that are complex.
The original Land Rover truck was such a vehicle. Until relatively recently you would see a great number of them at Tsangano Turn-Off. Village mechanics would repair them under mango trees when they broke down. You also used to see them at Chirimba in Blantyre, prompting people to name that part of Chirimba ‘Pa ma Land Rover’.
Today, 41 years after the first Zonse trucks rolled off the assembly line, you do not see any of them on Malawian roads. Something went terribly wrong.
It worries me that a number of projects that once kicked off, and would have elevated the economy of Malawi to levels way above where it is now, stalled. If you go to places such as Lafarge (formerly Portland Cement), Nampak (formerly Packaging Industries Malawi), Admarc and a host of other factories in Blantyre, you will see railway extensions (rail spurs) right into the yards of these factories. Once upon a time, trains used to haul raw materials to, and finished products from, these factories.
Rail transport is by far the cheapest way to move bulky cargo over land and therefore made these companies competitive. All you see at these factories today are rail spurs partially buried under silt, unused and unusable. They are just relics of the glorious economic times of yester years. Something went terribly wrong.
Nzeru Radio Company used to manufacture beautiful wireless sets. They later embarked on building radiograms. A radiogram was a unit that comprised a radio and a record player in one assembly. Much later, they started manufacturing Sun batteries. Today, they do not manufacture any of these. I am not even sure if the company still exists. Something went terribly wrong.
I have in previous articles narrated how Lever Brothers (now Unilever) and BAT were once the epitome of manufacturing in Malawi. Today, the Unilever factory is no more than a ghost. I heard a rumour the other day that the Unliver premises were up for sale. BAT premises have been converted into a shopping mall. Something went terribly wrong.
Many things went wrong in this country—politically, socially, academically—the list is endless. We need to revamp our country. We have taken too many short-cuts along the way. A few weeks ago, I read, and was intrigued by, a story about Malawi having had 16 football coaches in as many years, compared with Germany which has had only 10 in 90 years. The German ambassador said this was a reflection of the Malawian way of thinking. We are good at misdiagnosis, and we therefore apply the wrong ‘medication’ to our problems. My take is that the problem with our football is not so much the coaches as the lack of a proper plan to build up a winning team.
Yes, we apply wrong solutions to our problems. Somebody in their wisdom thought that articulated trucks would be the perfect solution to our transport problems. But trucks are 10 times more expensive than trains to move heavy loads of cargo. When Zonse vehicles showed up, somebody must have thought, “Ah, you can actually get a better car, more cheaply, from outside than this so-called locally made unit” and so the vision perished. We should have stuck with our Zonse like the Indians have stuck with their Tata. We need to learn to be patriotic and give local initiatives chance to thrive. This, of course, is not to give local manufacturers the licence to be arrogant and charge whatever they want to charge for their goods. That would not be patriotic.
Malawians need to conduct an honest search within themselves and find out if they have been part of the problem or part of possible solutions. n